I must confess that I coveted my neighbor’s property. Certainly not because it was better than my own. My vineyard was ancient, scruffy, and toppling downhill. Leone's was worse, still. But, it stood between my land and a potential back road...a muddy/dusty tractor lane at the base of the valley.
My acreage, at a 20% slope, was more than I could ever maintain. Even so, I had reasoned that with a road, there might be a tractor...a small tractorino... maybe, I could start with a rotary cultivator.
All I had to do was get Leone to sell me his plot.
When we had first bought our land, with its vineyard and little brick barn, we would leave our city apartment on Sundays to pass our days there. The one room village alimentari (food shop) sold their own salami made with Barbera and some crusty bread, overaged fruit and a leccalecca (lollipop) for the baby. We camped on a set of rickety lawn chairs, and congratulated ourselves on being the Owners of such a breathtaking view.
It was early on such a Sunday morning that I first saw Leone. I thought he was dead.
Standing halfway down our slope, my eye caught on a dark bundle below our property line, laid across a row, and under a vine. As I got closer, I could see a fluff of white hair at one end...and began automatically to rehearse the steps of CPR. But, he moved; rolled sideways to take up his wooden flask, a contadino's, farmer’s, midmorning break of bread, salami, and wine.
I knew that his name was Giuseppe Ferrero. Our elderly friends, Lucia and Flavio had pointed him out...one adding “povero diavolo,” (poor devil) the other “veij bastard.” I never found anyone who knew or remembered why he was called “Leone,” the Lion. He was anything but leonine. Stubby and gnarled like the ceppi in his vineyard. He always had the watery eyes and snuffle of chronic hay fever. His trousers were cinched with a length of rope, a machete hanging from one hip. Gum boots in any weather, a “bunet” on his head and a lurid bandana (that I prefer to forget).
“Sr. Ferrero,” I called, “Tutto bene? Are you all right?” He was startled, but pulled out a grunt. Not only was I speaking a foreign language – Italian – but I had called him a name few ever had used. It was entirely possible that Sr. Leone Ferrero had never been further afield than the nearby market town since he was drafted into Mussolini's army. Piemontese was the language he spoke and Italian a far second, reserved for people at the bank and Southerners.
“Sr. Ferrero, if you ever want to sell that piece of vigna, vineyard, you will let me know, first, won't you?”
“I'll remember,” he said.
We repeated this exchange every time we met, for years. On the road, in the shop, between the rows. But while Leone always “remembered,” he never did “let me know.”
After a bad winter, I heard that he wasn't bothering to return to his vineyard. The vines and weeds and briars wove together in an impenetrable mass.
Not wanting to lose my bargaining position, I asked our mason, a local boy, if he knew anything about Leon's agricultural intentions.
“He can't sell that land – he doesn't really own it,” said Giorgio. “When his parents died it went to him and his sister.” They were so poor that the twenty lira or so, to divide the inheritance, was too costly a thing to bother with, and it never was done. “The sister,” continued Giorgio, “is senile, incapable of signing over to him.”
Leone, of course, always knew he couldn't sell me the vineyard, but I suppose in his farmer's code: one never turned an offer down flat, but left a window for chance.
I saw my tractor/cultivatore slip below the horizon.
Years passed: Leone's sister died and her land passed to her daughter. Leone's, eventually to his son.
But, the briar patch that borders the road and my property remains unchanged. I hear that the two cousins cannot suffer each other’s company long enough to discuss it and besides, the cost for a Notaio to give each his share, or to transfer the deed to another, is much, much higher than its worth as agricultural land. The vineyard has arrived at a deadlock, un punto morto. A sad and frustrating fact of Italian life.
I have finally admitted that I don't need more land, or a road, or a tractor.